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St. Petersburg weekend, Thursday and Friday notes

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – There have been a lot of things that have happened today and yesterday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the season-opening weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series, Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and Pirelli World Challenge.

So, here’s an attempted recap of some of the things beyond the on-track sessions:

VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES

EXTENSIONS, AND A ROAD MAP, ARE GOOD

Frye (center) has been at head of INDYCAR’s recent development and planning. Photo: IndyCar

It’s a good thing the term “five-year plan” isn’t a drinking term because INDYCAR president of competition and operations Jay Frye says “five-year plan” a lot.

But “five-year plan” is a phrase that can stave off a lot of anxiety because it is a phrase that indicates a clear road map, with direction and commitments from the key series stakeholders.

Frye said the word “plan” no less than eight times during today’s press conference confirming the various extensions between Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara.

“I think everybody up here has been part of this five-year plan we keep talking about, which is a collaboration of this entire group, as well as everybody in the paddock,” Frye explained.

“It was important we have a path, a destination of where we’re going. As mentioned earlier, the plan in 19 will change things for ’21, ’22, ’23. We’re always looking that far out. Want to make sure everybody has bought into what we’re doing next.”

Paddock reception to the news seemed positive. Michael Andretti said it was beneficial for INDYCAR, as a sanctioning body, to be proactive rather than reactive and said this is what they are trying to do now. Alexander Rossi, who is in a noticeably better and different mindset about IndyCar than this time 12 months ago when he was making his series debut, was equally effusive.

Will Power added similar praise after the Friday press conference: “I think you could see the momentum with the continuity of drivers, teams, manufacturers, tire manufacturers, all that. It shows strength in the series. It really does. There was a time when there was a different set of drivers every year. Now it’s the same group every year, same teams.”

HONDA FAST, BUT LET’S WAIT TIL TOMORROW FOR MORE

DIxon at speed. Photo: Honda

Quite a bit last year, you’d see some Honda teams have decent practice days, but it didn’t necessarily translate to having better qualifying runs.

At St. Petersburg in particular, only Takuma Sato (2015) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2016) have gotten Hondas into the Firestone Fast Six since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits.

Chip Ganassi Racing Teams certainly had a great second session today with Dixon first, Tony Kanaan third and Charlie Kimball fourth, all in the 1:02 bracket around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course. But Dixon cautioned against reading too much into the times.

“It’s Friday. It doesn’t pay anything, doesn’t mean anything,” said the Kiwi. “Hopefully what we learnt today, we can continue on and help improve the car come tomorrow, and more importantly for the race on Sunday.”

PUTTING THE BRAKES ON THE BRAKE TALK?

Is excessive brake temperature and potential brake fade in the race going to be a major topic of conversation this weekend? It depends on who you ask.

Performance Friction’s carbon brakes make their debut this weekend, replacing previously supplier Brembo. Per PFC Director of Motorsports Darrick Dong, PFC had 28 total IndyCar tests prior to their race debut this weekend dating to the middle of last year. PFC was announced as new supplier in September last season; a full intro Q&A is linked here.

The general perception in the paddock is that some Honda teams may have not optimized their cooling to ensure their discs don’t get too hot, whereas the Chevrolet teams might have done a better job in the design process. Will Power, who was second in second practice, said this isn’t the highest track for brake pressures with only two decently long straights and heavy braking points.

“The brakes for me have been fine. It’s not a really high-pressure track,” Power explained. “I think it’s when you go to places like Elkhart Lake, Indy road course, these places where you have massive brake pressure, and you notice the difference.”

SUSIE WHELDON’S NEW SHOP

Susie Wheldon launched the new Verve Boutique store on Central Avenue downtown St. Petersburg on Thursday night. A number of IndyCar drivers and a solid amount of presence from the IndyCar community were there to support the opening for the new store. Wheldon is the widow of the late Dan Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and 2005 series champion who lost his life at Las Vegas in October 2011. More info on the night here is linked via Brant James of USA Today.

A couple of photos are below:

FUN PREVIEW FROM MOBIL 1 THE GRID

From Mobil 1 The Grid: a preview and a look ahead to this street race:

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES

Telitz has a debut pole in Indy Lights. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Here are quick notes from this weekend’s preliminary sessions for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires before their races, which begin tomorrow:

  • History may be on its way to repeating itself in the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, if first practice was to be believed. Pato O’Ward, who was only on an announced one-weekend deal last year (at the time) with Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda and promptly won the first race of the year, led first practice today in his first session of his one-weekend deal (for now, anyway) in Indy Lights. Santiago Urrutia was second with Colton Herta third. The top 13 were covered by just 0.9656 of a second.
  • Come qualifying though and O’Ward was second behind his Pro Mazda title sparring partner last year, Aaron Telitz with Telitz uncorking a late flier in the No. 9 Soul Red Mazda he drives for Belardi Auto Racing. Telitz’s best time of 1:07.5844 nets him a debut pole in his step up to Indy Lights, and fellow American Kyle Kaiser moves into second in the No. 18 Juncos Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda after O’Ward lost his best time with an accident at Turn 7. In third, Juan Piedrahita has a career-best qualifying run for Team Pelfrey; the Colombian veteran’s previous best was fourth at Sonoma, twice, in 2014.
  • Deltro Energy announced its sponsorship of Herta’s No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing entry earlier this week.Based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, Deltro Energy designs and installs energy storage systems with emerging technologies such as Lithium-ion batteries and fly wheels. The younger Herta, who turns 17 this month and did not race here in 2014 when he last raced full-time in the U.S. in USF2000 because he was too young, also threw out the first pitch at Tuesday’s New York Yankees spring training game, held at nearby George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Herta’s got a maturity level beyond his years and told NBC Sports he’s so much happier to be back in an American racing atmosphere, after spending the last two years racing in Europe.
  • Despite a late arrival to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires grid – a deal which only came together within the last week – Victor Franzoni topped the timesheets in first official practice here for Juncos Racing. His old USF2000 sparring partner Anthony Martin was second with Team Pelfrey’s trio of youngsters third through fifth.
  • The order was reversed in qualifying though, with Mazda scholarship recipient Martin eclipsing Franzoni for pole for the first race. The Australian took his Cape Motorsports Soul Red Mazda to a pole time of 1:13.6718, just 0.012 of a second clear of Franzoni. TJ Fischer and Carlos Cunha were next for Pelfrey with World Speed Motorsports’ Phillippe Denes rounding out the top five.
  • Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda had two qualifying sessions, which feature two different orders. Robert Megennis has his first career pole for Team Pelfrey in race one, and Parker Thompson has the first pole for USF2000 debuting team Exclusive Autosport. Somewhat bizarrely, both drivers set the exact same time but in two different sessions, at a lap of 1:15.3708!
  • It’s been a tough weekend for Newman/Wachs Racing in the team’s return to the open-wheel ladder. The former Atlantic Championship title-winning team has witnessed three accidents, two from Andre Castro and one for Cameron Das, who is in his only confirmed weekend with the team so far. Castro was reportedly distraught after a Thursday accident but got back in on Friday, only to have another accident. Das’ car came back on a truck at the end of the session.

Results from today’s sessions are below:

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

Aquilante led the GTS field in PWC, Friday at St. Petersburg. Photo: PWC

Here are notes from the Pirelli World Challenge paddock:

  • Expect the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, the classic “Red Dragon No. 99” car driven by Jon Fogarty, to be a Sprint-weekend only entrant, barring a change of plans from team principal Stallings. The team indicated the desire to be primarily in the Sprint race markets (the five IndyCar weekends) for GAINSCO Auto Insurance agents, and also want to take a “wait-and-see” approach to the SprintX season. The SprintX season starts at Virginia International Raceway at the end of April.
  • Late entrant Daniel Mancinelli, an Italian driver with some GT experience in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, took his No. 31 TR3 Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 to a surprise overall pole position. He was initially classified as a GTA driver (amateur or inexperienced in GT cars status) but later reclassified to GT following a formal evaluation from PWC.
  • Ryan Eversley’s No. 43 RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 did not make qualifying after an accident on Thursday, Eversley having hit the wall at Turn 6 in a rare incident for the popular driver out of Georgia who’s become an unofficial resident of Wisconsin in recent years since joining RealTime. Michael Shank Racing is assisting in the repair process by sending some spare parts to Florida to help the rebuild, which will be completed in time for the first GT race to be held on Saturday.
  • Andrew Aquilante took the fifth consecutive victory on the streets of St. Petersburg for the venerable but aging Ford Mustang Boss 302 in PWC GTS race one. Dean Martin and Spencer Pumpelly did so in 2015 with Jack Roush Jr. sweeping last year. This is a one-off weekend for Aquilante and Phoenix Performance, for the moment. Polesitter Lawson Aschenbach took the new Chevrolet Camaro GT4 to second in its race debut for Blackdog Speed Shop with Jade Buford third in one of the Racers Edge SIN R1 GT4s.
  • Speaking of the new Camaro GT4, the Blackdog team showed assembled media around the new car this morning. A full debrief from that will come next week. The Camaro GT4 runs a parallel debut program between PWC and IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge; the Camaro will debut in that series at Circuit of The Americas in May.
  • Audi Tire Center announced an extension with Magnus Racing’s pair of Audi R8 LMS entries, which make their PWC debut this weekend. Pierre Kaffer and John Potter are in the two cars.

Results from today’s sessions are below:

OTHER NOTES

Andretti Autosport’s new hospitality unit is a sight to behold in the paddock. Photo: Tony DiZinno
  • Andretti Autosport premiered its new hospitality unit in the paddock today, which is rather large and dwarfs all others as it has a rooftop viewing area. Michael Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay both joked the hospitality unit needs a name; when the question was posed to Andretti Indy Lights driver Dalton Kellett, the Canadian engineering major and series sophomore joked it should be called “Clifford the Big Red Tent” in reference to Clifford the Big Red Dog, a children’s carton. The tent may not be red, but it is big.
  • On more serious Andretti Autosport matters, team president JF Thormann told NBC Sports he hopes to have the driver for the team’s fifth car for the Indianapolis 500 settled within the next two weeks.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which fields the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Graham Rahal this weekend, hosted Special Forces members from MacDill today. RLL’s “Turns for Troops” program continues into 2017; more info on that program is here.
  • Rising Star Racing principal Art Wilmes is here this weekend supporting both of his two primary drivers Spencer Pigot and Neil Alberico, RSR ambassador and “godfather” Josef Newgarden, and Pro Mazda champion and Indy Lights rookie Telitz, who’s had a bit of help from him before. Wilmes said he is working on ensuring Pigot, who’s not currently confirmed for the Indianapolis 500, can land a seat there.
  • On another Rising Star Racing note, several members of the Tampa Bay Lighting were present today for pace car rides, and hung out with RSR’s current primary Indy Lights driver Alberico of Carlin.
  • Ricky Taylor was here today as an interested bystander. Taylor tested for Team Penske last month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in his IndyCar debut. “It was an absolute blast. Every driver’s goal at one point in their career is to be an IndyCar driver, and it was amazing to get the call to drive a Penske car,” Taylor told IndyCar Radio. “We were doing a two-day test in Sebring with the Cadillac, I said I have to miss one of them. I’m testing a Penske car! Took the test and it was a blast to drive one of these, muscling around.”
  • Verizon has a new pit display branding in pit lane, that takes cues from its previous design and is updated for 2017.
  • Honda’s hospitality – long a paddock staple – continues with additional enhancements including a new awning and several other new elements once inside the tent. The food, as ever, remains excellent.
  • Oriol Servia is here, as is fellow open-wheel veteran Adrian Fernandez. Fernandez said he offers some advice and support to young Mexican drivers while he can, such as Indy Lights driver O’Ward.
  • While rookie Ed Jones made his formal debut on track today in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, three of that car’s four drivers from last year were also either at the track today or en route to it. RC Enerson was here, doing his best to keep his face present in the paddock after his three-race debut last year. Gabby Chaves is here as well, doing the same, while Pippa Mann was en route to St. Petersburg and expects to be here this weekend for an autograph signing at INDYCAR’s Fan Village and to check in with the paddock herself.

More to come from the rest of the weekend later on.

Porsche announces LMP1 withdrawal from FIA WEC

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Porsche has announced its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class, the top class, a year earlier than its current contract called it to.

The move comes after a high-profile meeting in Germany to evaluate the effectiveness of Porsche’s top-tier LMP1 program to the overall Porsche brand.

Additionally, Porsche has confirmed its entry into the FIA Formula E Championship from season six, starting in 2019.

This aligns with the company’s new electric direction focus for its product line, Porsche Strategy 2025, which will see Porsche develop a combination of pure GT vehicles and fully electric sports cars, such as the first fully electric Porsche model, based upon the Mission E concept car.

Porsche released the following statement today about the end of its LMP1 tenure:

“Building up the Le Mans team from scratch was a huge challenge. Over the years, we have developed an incredibly successful and professional team. This will be our basis going forward. I am certain that we will maintain our high level in Formula E. Confidence is high, and we are excited to get started,” said Fritz Enzinger, Vice President in charge of LMP1.

Porsche said it plans to keep the LMP1 team intact, including its factory drivers, elsewhere within the framework of the company. Additionally, the new mid-engined 911 RSR will continue in the GT ranks; the new car won its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet at Lime Rock Park this past week.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, taking its overall win total to a Le Mans record 19 wins. It’s also won the last two FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 championships, with Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley in 2015 and with Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb last year.

The move leaves the FIA WEC’s marquee LMP1 class in a difficult position from 2018 and beyond, as Porsche joins fellow VAG brand Audi as a second manufacturer to withdraw from the top class in as many years.

Toyota is left as the single manufacturer, its contract good through 2019. But while LMP1 privateer has witnessed several announcements of new programs, how many actually materialize beyond the press releases into cars on the grid remains to be seen.

Despite the excitement over manufacturers in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Daytona Prototype international (DPi) formula, the DPis paired with the 2017-spec LMP2 cars in IMSA’s Prototype class, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would need to allow DPis to race at Le Mans if they are to make an appearance in Europe. Right now, the cars are ineligible.

The GTE-Pro ranks will be bolstered with BMW’s arrival with the new M8 GTE, joining the existing four manufacturers there, and that will likely emerge as the series’ marquee class.

Porsche announces entry to Formula E for season six

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Porsche has announced that it will be joining the FIA Formula E grid in 2019, taking the 12th and final slot currently available.

In the same announcement that confirmed the closure of its LMP1 program at the end of the season, Porsche revealed that it would be moving into the all-electric series for the 2019/20 campaign with a factory-backed operation.

“Entering Formula E and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission
E road car program,” said Michael Steiner, Member of the Executive Board for Research and
Development at Porsche AG.

“The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes Formula E attractive to us. Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts.

“For us, Formula E is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

Porsche has held an interest in Formula E for some time, with many of its key motorsport bosses venturing to the recent races in Monaco and Berlin in order to undertake research regarding a possible entry.

Following Monday’s news that Mercedes would be taking up its option on an entry to Formula E for season six, Porsche’s arrival acts as another huge boost for the burgeoning electric championship, which already enjoys involvement from manufacturers such as Renault, Audi, BMW and Jaguar.

“I’m delighted to welcome Porsche to the FIA Formula E Championship,” Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said. “If somebody told me when we started this project five years ago, that we’d be announcing a partnership with a brand like Porsche, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“To have a name like Porsche in Formula E, with all it represents in terms of racing and heritage – and in terms of sport cars – is an inflexion point in our quest to change the public perception about electric cars.

“The electric revolution continues, and Formula E remains the championship for that revolution.”

FIA president Jean Todt added: “Porsche is a brand which has a fantastic history in motorsport, and its intention to join the FIA Formula E Championship alongside so many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers is very positive.

“It’s clear that the hard work done to create a relevant laboratory for developing electric vehicle technologies has been successful, and I look forward to seeing Formula E continue to be a place of great sporting competition as well as innovation.

“I’m very happy that Porsche is coming to Formula E, but I regret their decision to leave the World Endurance Championship.”

The decision to end its LMP1 program and quit the FIA World Endurance Championship with one year still to run on its contract sees Porsche follow in the footsteps of sister Volkswagen Group brand Audi, which pulled a similar move less than 12 months ago.

Audi closed its long-running and hugely-successful LMP1 team at the end of last year in order to shift its focus to Formula E, enjoying works status with the ABT Schaeffler team from season four.

Porsche’s entry to Formula E marks its first foray into single-seater racing with a factory team since the end of its CART program in 1990.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.